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Epic’s final chapter, 35 years on

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In recent weeks many villagers have stopped in to tell Epic Book Shop owner Gail Lichtenfels how sorry they are that her Dayton Street shop is closing. They appreciate the quiet, peaceful space she created with her meditative music, comfortable sofas and local art, people say. But most of these Yellow Springers didn’t do the one thing she needed them to do for her store to survive, Lichtenfels said. They didn’t buy their books there.

On Feb. 21, Yellow Springs’ oldest retail shop will close its business after almost 40 years. As the owner for the past 35 years, Lichtenfels has spent her entire adult life selling books in this community. While not a financially lucrative profession, it’s been a good life, and she has no regrets, Lichtenfels said.

“I love books, buying, selling them and talking about them,” she said in a recent interview. “It’s been a rich thing for me.”

She feels bittersweet about closing, Lichtenfels said. Americans have changed their way of buying books, now frequenting big box stores like Barnes and Noble, or purchasing books online, so that small, independent stores across the country are dying out in large numbers. Lichtenfels tried her best to withstand that trend, but in the past year a bout of poor health added to her declining revenues, and she felt she had no choice but to close.

“I resisted for a long time because I was so personally attached to my business,” she said. “Now I’m more attached to living within my means.”

While the book business will close, the store will stay open as a cafe under new owners. Lichtenfels has sold her coffee business to Patrick and Mindy Harney, the owners of Brother Bear coffee, who will open the Brother Bear Cafe on March 1.

“I found someone as passionate about coffee as I am about books,” Lichtenfels said.

Until she closes her doors Feb. 21, Lichtenfels will still preside over her peaceful space, decorated with mermaid paintings on the walls. She’ll offer books for sale at 20 to 50 percent off, along with some furniture.

Lichtenfels’ lifetime of selling books began decades ago, when, as a Greenon High School student in 1970, she got a job working at the Epic, then located on Xenia Avenue and owned by Bob Devine. The store specialized in poetry and art books, Lichtenfels said, and she found she loved being surrounded by books. In 1974 she bought the business for $1,000, and has been there ever since.

During her bookselling career, the Epic has reflected Lichtenfels’ passions. The store initially focused on philosophy books, and later reflected her interest in feminism. In the past decade, she has specialized in books on spirituality, especially Eastern religions and yoga. And when she gave birth to her daughter, Hypatia, she added children’s books and products.

Her store allowed her to make a modest living, and to follow another fantasy, to live above a bookstore. For many years she lived above the Epic in its Xenia Avenue location.

“I loved living downtown, watching the streetlights change. It felt somehow universal,” she said.

In 1996 Lichtenfels was able to purchase a Dayton Street building she had long admired for its large south-facing windows and high ceilings. She moved the Xenia Avenue store to the new location, and she once again lived above the shop. For the first several years after her move, her business continued to be steady, but within a few years, the combination of the new Fairfield Mall, and the increase in online book buying made it harder to make a living, Lichtenfels said.

She rallied, trying a new emphasis on selling online, then adding a coffee shop, in efforts to stay afloat. But for the past decade, she was able to stay in business only by having a second job, teaching philosophy part-time at Wright State.

About about a year ago Lichtenfels discovered she had cancer, and her focus shifted from book selling to healing. While she is now cancer-free, she encountered one too many battles with this year’s recession, which hit her store hard. While December is usually her best month in sales, this year’s December revenues equaled those of past Januarys, her slowest month. It’s time to move on, she decided.

But Lichtenfels will continue to love books and to read voraciously, and she’ll continue, for now, to live above her store. She’s looking for a fulltime job to help her support herself and her daughter.

Lichtenfels has a passion for mermaids, as evidenced in the coffee shop part of her business, the Mermaid Cafe. Her recent decision to close her store and start over after more than three decades can be seen from a mermaidish perspective, she said.

“One way to look at what I’m doing is that I’m swimming off to the depths,” she said. “It’s exciting. I feel I’m entering the unknown.”

Until it closes Feb. 21, the Epic Bookshop will be open most days from about 12:30 to 5 p.m.

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